Sociology - How do Functionalists explain crime?

Functionalists and crime and deviance..


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For Durkheim, crime and deviance were central to any understanding of how society functions.  He identified two different sides of crime and deviance for the functioning of society:

+ Help’s society change and remain dynamic

- Too much crime leads to social disruption.

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Positive aspects of crime

According to Durkeim, crime - or at least a certain limited amount of crime - was necessary for any society. Durkheim argued that at the basis of society was a set of shared values which guide our actions, which he called the collective conscience.  It provides a framework with boundaries, which distinguishes between actions which are acceptable and those which are not. Durkheim discussed four elements of the positive aspect to crime.

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Four elements of the positive aspect to crime - Du

1  Re-affirming the boundaries - Every time that a person breaks a law and is taken to court, the resulting court ceremony and the publicity in the newspapers, publicly re-affirms the existing values.

 2 Changing values - Every so often when a person is taken to court and charged with a crime a degree of sympathy occurs for the person prosecuted.  The resulting public outcry signals a change in values and, in time this can lead to a change in law to reflect the changing values. 

3  Social cohesion - A third function of crime, according to Durkheim, is to strengthen social cohesion.  He points out that when particularly horrific crimes have been committed, the entire community draws in together in shared outrage, and the sense of belonging to a community is thereby strengthened. Deviant acts

4. Safety Valve - Deviant acts may be funtional as a form of pressure release.

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The negative aspects of crime

However, Durkheim stressed that it was a certain, limited amount of crime which performed positive functions for society.  Too much crime, on the other hand, had negative consequences. 

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We saw before that, according to Durkheim, society is based on people sharing common values (the collective conscience), which form the basis for actions. However, in periods of great social change or stress, the collective conscience may be weakened. In this situation, people may be freed from the social control imposed by the collective conscience and may start to look after their own selfish interests rather than adhering to social values. Durkheim called this situation anomie.  Where a collapse of the collective conscience has occurred and anomie exists, crime rates rocket.  Only by re-imposing collective values can the situation be brought back under control.

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Hirschi: bonds of attachment

Durkheim's concept of anomie suggests that if people are not 'controlled' by shared social values, then they look after their own short-term interests without concern for others. This led Hirschi to turn around the normal question of why do people commit crime to another, equally intriguing one - why don’t people commit crime?

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Hirschi: bonds of attachment cont'd (1)

Hirschi focuses sociologists’ attention on what forces hold people's behaviour in check, rather than what propels them into crime. Hirschi argued that criminal activity occurs when people's attachment to society is weakened in some way. This attachment depends upon the strength of the social bonds which hold people to society.

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Hirschi: bonds of attachment cont'd (2)

According to Hirsci, there are four crucial bonds which bind us together:

1             Attachment :  to what extent do we care about other people’s opinions and wishes.

2             Commitment: refers to the personal investments that each of us makes in our lives. What have we got to lose if we commit a crime?

3             Involvement: how busy are we?  Is there time and space for law breaking and deviant behaviour?

4             Belief:  how strong is a person’s sense that they should obey the rules of society?

Therefore, greater the attachment to society, the lower the level of crime.

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Merton: strain theory

In the 1930s, Merton tried to locate deviance within a functionalist framework. For Merton crime and deviance were evidence of a poor fit or a strain between the socially accepted goals of society and the socially approved means of obtaining those desired goals.  The resulting strain led to deviance.

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Merton: strain theory cont'd (1)

Merton argued that all societies set their members certain goals, at the same time they also provide socially approved ways of achieving these goals.  Merton was aware that not everyone shared the same goals, and he pointed out that in a stratified society, the goals were linked to a person's position in the social structure. Those lower down had restricted goals.  The system worked well as long as there was a reasonable chance that a majority of people were able to achieve their goals.  However, if the majority of the population were unable to achieve the socially set goals then they became disenchanted with society and sought out alternative (often deviant) ways of behaving. 

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Merton: strain theory cont'd (2)

Merton believed that the goal of society was economic and material wealth above all else and that the means provided to achieve these goals were hard work and educational achievement.


Different forms of behaviour then could be understood as a strain between goals and means.

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Merton: strain theory cont'd (3)

·         Conformity - here the individual continues to adhere to both goals and means, despite the limited likelihood of success. 

·         Innovation - the person accepts the goals of society by uses different ways to achieve those goals. Criminal behaviour is included in this response.

·         Ritualism - here the means are used by the individual, but sight of the actual goal is lost.  For example, the bureaucrat or the police officer blindly enforcing the letter of the law without looking at the nature of justice.

·         Retreatism:  here the individual rejects both goals and means.  For example, the person dependent upon drugs or alcohol is included.

·         Rebellion:  Both the socially sanctioned goals and means are rejected and different ones substituted.  For example, this is the political activist or the religious fundamentalist.

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Criticism of Merton

Merton has been criticised by Valier (2001) amongst others for his stress on the existence of a common goal in society. Valier argues that there are in fact a variety of goals which people strive to attain at any one time.

Merton is also criticised by functionalist subcultural theorists for focussing on crime as an individual act, rather than a collective/group response.

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Key Criticisms of Functionalist theory.

  • Functionalism assumes that there is a common value system to deviate from
  • Functionalists do not recognise sub cultures
  • Functionalists are very accepting of official statistics as valid
  • Functionalists do not explore the motivations and meanings given to deviant acts
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Emma Dobson


It's all information that I found on this site, I just personally find it easier to revise from short notes like this opposed to a word document .. feel free to have a look but as I said before It's all from another persons work!!!!



I thought it was v good.. it  said I rated it as 2, but meant to put 4*!!
Thanks a lot!

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